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Irreconcilable forces in China

The roots of this week's violence go back. Way back.

Trouble erupts in Xinjiang periodically, as it does in Tibet, because two unreconcilable forces are at work against each other. One is the desire of ethnic, linguistic and racial minorities for real autonomy, if not independence, to keep their culture and traditions alive.

The other is China’s age-old obsession with keeping the empire together. For thousands of years China has fallen apart into warring states, only to unite again under a strong emperor. “States cleave asunder and then coalesce,” is the way China’s classic 14th-century epic “The Romance of the Three Kingdoms” puts it.

By 1940 China was split into three kingdoms by Chiang Kai-Shek, Mao and the Japanese who overran the coast and set up their own puppet government in Manchuria. The Japanese were driven out, Mao prevailed over Chiang, and neither Tibet nor Xinjiang have never really enjoyed a moment’s autonomy ever since. But a strong emperor had once again reunited most of China.

The Chinese looked on with horror as the Soviet Union disintegrated, and all the Muslim Khanates of Central Asia were reborn again as independent countries. They became determined not to let it happen to them.

In Xinjiang oil and gas have replaced jade as commodities the Chinese don’t want to let go of, and the resurgence of Islam as a political force is another threat to their kingdom, as the Chinese see it.

The triumph of more technologically advanced societies over less was completed in the 19th century. The 20th century saw an age of mass decolonialization. China’s humiliation at the hands of foreigners has ended, but the Chinese are not willing to see themselves as foreigners in Xinjiang or Tibet.

Having gained control over its own destiny, China is determined to remain united and a world power. But the resistance of peoples who bridle under what they consider an occupying power continues, as it always has.

Read more from columnist HDS Greenway:

In Afghanistan, lessons from empires past

The fissures of Tehran

US should respond carefully to Iran crisis

Editor's note: This story was updated to correct spelling errors.